Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of stories about women being sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and raped. First came the accusations against Harvey Weinstein, then the #MeToo social media campaign, and now it seems like every week there are more celebrities, politicians, and other men in power who are being accused of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and/or rape. It makes me feel both sad and angry to hear that so many people are being victimized in this way. And to me, the worst part is that in many cases there were people who knew what was happening and did nothing to stop it.

In this week’s parshah, parshat Vayishlach, when Dina was raped and held captive and her brothers Shimon and Levi heard about it, they took action. They killed Shechem, her rapist and kidnaper, along with all the other men of his city, and brought their sister home. Their father, Yaakov responded to them, saying: “You have brought trouble on me” (Gen. 34:30).

Yaakov expressed his fear that his sons’ actions would put his family in danger. But he did not address whether or not their actions were morally appropriate. Maybe Yaakov not addressing the moral question of Shimon and Levi’s actions is a sign that morally he agreed with them and his only issue was pragmatic. Maybe not.

Did they do the right thing? Rambam says that they did, because it was a lawless city, and therefore all the men of the city were in violation of the Noahide law requiring them to establish a system of laws for the city; this violation carries a punishment of execution. Based on that, the people of the city may have also deserved execution before the rape and kidnaping of Dina, since the city lacked law and order then too. But it seems like Shimon and Levi were motivated by the rape and kidnaping of their sister.

But what about about cases of rape today in places that do have law and order, such as America or Israel? What does halacha say about how we should respond to those?

The Rambam, in the Mishneh Torah, in Laws of a Murderer and the Preservation of Life 1:15, says:

The one who sees a pursuer going after his friend to kill him or after a woman to rape her and is able to save [the pursued] and does not, has transgressed a positive commandment: “and cut off her hand” (Deut. 25:12) and has transgressed two negative commandments: “do not show pity” (Deut. 25:12) and “do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Lev. 19:16.)

We see here that the halacha treats a pursuer attempting to rape a woman as severely as a pursuer trying to kill a person. We also see in the Sefer HaChinuch 600:1 that if the only way to save a person from a pursuer is to kill the pursuer, we’re obligated to kill the pursuer.

To sum up, if a man is attempting to rape a woman, we are obligated to save her if we can. If we need to kill the rapist in order to stop him, we should.

But what does saving her if we can, mean? How hard does one need to try? Do we need to put our own lives at risk? The Sefer HaChinuch 237 explains that we do not need to risk our lives to save her, but if we can’t save her ourselves, we are obligated to hire others to do so. Today, as opposed to hundreds of years ago, this is fairly easy since most of us have cell phones on us 24/7. We all have the ability to take out our phones, call 9-1-1, and ask people who are being paid by our tax dollars to help. Basically, if you see something, say something.

This still leaves us with some important questions regarding bystander responsibility in many cases of sexual assault today. The halacha seems clear regarding one’s responsibility when he witnesses a man attempting to rape a woman. But what if we find out only after the rape occurs? We can no longer save the woman. Are we still obligated to do something? And what if it’s not rape? What about other cases of sexual assault and or harassment? Do we have an obligation to take action in those cases?

I think we can answer these questions by taking a closer look at one of the psukim in the Torah on which the Rambam bases this halacha. “And cut off her hand; do not show pity” (Deut. 25:12), from which Rambam derives both a positive and a negative mitzvah to save a woman from rape, does not specifically refer to rape or to stopping an act in progress. Based on the previous verse, this mitzvah is what we should do to a woman who grabs the genitals of a man who is not her husband. This mitzvah is a response to groping, and not about stopping one from groping, but rather about punishing a person for a sexual offense, after the fact. Based on this, whether rape or another type of sexual offense, whether during or after the fact, we should punish the perpetrator and not have pity on him or her.

Additionally, it’s important to note that Harvey Weinstein, and many other perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual assault, had had multiple victims. So I would argue that even if a given act of sexual harassment or assault is over, we should assume that if the perpetrator gets away with it, he may soon be chasing after someone else to do the same or worse. We can’t stand idly by and let that happen.

If we ever have any knowledge of specific occurrences or perpetrators of sexual misconduct, we should feel the outrage that Shimon and Levi felt, and take action. Not actions of killing, unless we’re left with no other choice, but actions of taking steps to help the victim and stop whatever the sexual misconduct is. If we have the ability to do this personally, we should. If not, we should alert the authorities and do what we can to make sure that they take the complaint seriously, prosecute the perpetrator to the fullest extent of the law, and support the victim. We live in places that do have law and order, and we should act within those systems. But we must be sure to act.